Assisi Through My Eyes by Robert Hutmacher, o.f.m.
I experiment with art forms and admired pen and ink drawings for years. I’ve created a series of prints of Assisi. I want to share a few of them with you because they describe visually some of the most endearing places on Mother Earth.
The first is a CITYSCAPE OF ASSISI with the huge, walled compound surrounding the Basilica of St. Francis on the left. On the far right side is the bell tower of the Basilica of St. Clare. The tallest tower about midway through town is the city watch tower built in 1274 and you may see the dark dome of San Rufino, the cathedral.
There are traces of human presence in this area back to the Bronze Age (1900-1800 BCE) but an actual town of any size wasn’t recorded until the Hellenistic period (323-30 BCE). It was known to be a religious site devoted to various deities and became part of the Roman Confederation in 89 BCE. It gradually became a separate city with mighty, protective walls built as early as 150 BCE. The wall extends from the walls of the Basilica complex to the outer limits of the city where the remains of a Roman ampitheatre lie; it is 8,204 feet long and covers an area of 200,000,000 square feet. Various gates puncture the walls. Current population inside and outside the walls: 25,000 people.
The City of Peace has a violent history as it was a strategic city built on a mountainside along the major trade route from Ravenna to Rome. When the Roman Empire collapsed Assisi became lost in history because of invaders from the north, the Byzantine domination and the destruction of the city walls by Charlemagne around 800 AD. Violence was such a part of its early history that one writer described the “streets running with blood.” Ironic in light of the future that would unfold with the Little Man of Peace, isn’t it?
In 1160 Frederick Barbarossa established his Holy Roman Empire’s borders to include the Duchy of Spoleto but the city bounced between jurisdictions, factions and powers until 1198. The inhabitants of Assisi, including Francesco Bernadone, rose up against the Duke of Spoleto and destroyed the fortress (visible above the Basilica) and became a new and free comune. That did not guarantee peace however. Assisiani were divided between the nobility and the rising merchant class. The Bernadone home was right on the dividing line between rich and poor, the upper and lower cities as they’re called. Clare lived above, Francis below. They both ended up living outside the walls!
SAN DAMIANO is the beloved chapel where Francis had his experience before the crucifix that led to his tumultuous period of conversion in 1205. The tiny chapel is documented from 1030 and in the 12th century was under the care of the Cathedral of San Rufino, the patron saint of Assisi. It was simply an oratory with a raised presbytery and it’s difficult to know the extent Francis “repaired my house”. However when Clare and her sisters took up residence here in 1212 there was a great deal of building. You see just to the left above the circular window a door; that is the dormitory of Clare where sometimes up to fifty nuns slept. Clare lived here until her death in 1253 and the Ladies of San Damiano (Poor Clares) moved from this holy place to the newly constructed Basilica of St. Clare in 1259.
Surprisingly, the chapel of San Damiano was actually owned privately after the abolition of ecclesiastical property in 1860 following the unification of Italy. The last private owner gave it in perpetuity to the Order of Friars Minor in only 1983! The friars have lived there ever since and it is the novitiate for the Assisi Province.
When doing research in the ‘90’s on medieval music about Francis and Clare I spent a good deal of time praying with the friars, gleaning “The Breviary of St. Clare” and other treasures for melodies and chants. I even helped the novices harvest olives one day, which was a great learning experience! The friars celebrate Eucharist and Evening Prayer daily and people gather with them, even in the darkness of winter as when I was working there a couple of years. In the summer San Damiano is like magnet for young people as a place of prayer, searching and communal comfort.
CHIESA NUOVA is a place near and dear to my heart because I lived here in that period in the ‘90’s doing research. Though contested, many believe it is built over what was the Bernadone home and shop where Francis lived and worked before his formal split with his family. This church was built in 1615 with the financial help of King Philip III of Spain. It’s called the “new church” simply because it is. There is a vault inside that may have been where Pietro imprisoned his son, along with a lower room that was the Bernadone cloth shop. The interior of the church is covered with frescoes dated from 1621, including an image of the martyrdom of the first friars killed for the faith in Morocco in 1220.
Chiesa Nuova is an active parish and the friars maintain a precious library where I worked. It contains an incunabula (books printed before 1501) and letters of popes to Clare and Francis. The friary is also attached to a very modern lecture hall and they maintain a recital hall across the street where I’ve performed. Chiesa Nuova is the namesake of our ministry for the arts, bearing in mind how we’re called to be Church in new ways.
Two years after his death Francis was canonized on July 16, 1228. Gregory IX laid the cornerstone the next day for the BASILICA OF SAINT FRANCIS. It was built on donated land on Colle dell’ Inferno (the Hill of Hell), a place of executions. What began as a simple structure to house the tomb of Francis escalated into a massive three level construction filled with controversy. The body of Francis was entombed under tons of rubble in 1230 and the basilica was finished in just twenty years, amazing for medieval construction!
The Upper Basilica represents the prototype of Franciscan churches, designed to resemble a piazza for preaching and liturgy that was unhindered by side aisles. It has a very simple stone exterior but when one enters, the visitor is surrounded by an explosion of light and polychromatic story telling. The altar was consecrated in 1253 when Clare died. The famous artist and architect, Giotto di Bondone, painted twenty eight massive panels, all based on the Major Life of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure. Cimabue and other artists contributed to the paintings in the apse and crossing; there is not one spot in the Upper Basilica that is not painted. The new Gothic style was acknowledged in the pointed arches.
In order to help the everyday pilgrim understand the significance of Francis’ life, there are two layers above the panels about him. The middle panels are scenes from the life of Christ that parallel events in the life of Francis. Above the New Testament panels are yet a third layer 70 feet up that depict scenes from the Old Testament. Various artists were employed to paint these scenes, along with the entireLOWER BASILICA.
The middle part of this structure is not as tall as the upper basilica. It is, nonetheless, breathtaking. The entire ceiling is covered in blue made from crushed lapis lazuli. Encrusted in that blue are thousands of tiny mirrors interspersed with hooks that once held hundreds of oil lamps. When all were lit the medieval pilgrim was transported from the ordinary pain and ugliness of life into a heavenly presence never before experienced. Side chapels abound as do extraordinary frescoes of saints and the life of Christ.
Below these two churches is one my favorite places on earth, the TOMB OF FRANCIS. His original tomb was uncovered in 1818 and the crypt constructed in 1822-24, then again as we know it in its present form in 1925-32. In 1932 the bodies of his close friends Rufino, Angelo, Masseo and Leo were entombed in four niches at the crypt’s corners and Lady Jacoba de’ Settesoli is buried at the entrance to the crypt. The tomb is utterly simple and his remains are held in a sarcophagus above the altar. It is a joy to celebrate the Eucharist here; some of my music has been used here too.
THE CARCERI refers to the sacred hermitage high above town on Mt. Subasio. Here you see the compound of the friary and tiny chapels. The carceri (prison) refers to the caves and hiding places where Francis, Leo, Sylvester and countless other friars went for long periods of contemplation. One can still visit some of those caves and pray in the heights of Umbrian beauty.
Friar Bob Hutmacher, ofm